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Robyn Archer might now be best known as one of our great cultural advocates, but as a performer she remains an icon. By Steve Dow.

Singer, performer and advocate Robyn Archer

Robyn Archer.
Robyn Archer.
Credit: Claudio Raschellá

The small, short-haired woman under the red stage lights holds a guitar. On one side of her is a piano player, on the other an accordionist. Adelaide-born Robyn Archer AO invests her contralto, the lowest female register, with all the crooning pizzazz of Frank Sinatra.

It’s June 2021 and, in the Dunstan Playhouse in her home town, she is starring in Mother Archer’s Cabaret for Dark Times. (To be performed on March 31 at the Melbourne Recital Centre, just made for the zeitgeist.)

Archer jauntily hops her rich tones across Aristide Bruant’s 1880s ditty “Here Comes the Cholera”, which she roughly translated herself from the French, throwing in an Aussie “cark” when summing up the human death toll. She turns the key to country-folk with the Bailes Brothers’ “Whiskey is the Devil (in Liquid Form)”, signalling that a pandemic is no time to be getting on the beers, or spirits.

Born Robyn Smith, Archer learnt from her late father – the singer, compere and stand-up comedian Cliff “Lykke” Smith – how to work a room. You would never guess that this woman’s severe childhood asthma affected her adult lung capacity: she sounds great. Her asthma is well controlled today but Covid-19 poses an extreme risk, so she is super cautious off stage, wearing a mask when we meet after the show in the Adelaide Festival Centre lobby.

The director Wal Cherry effectively launched Archer’s career by casting her in Weill and Brecht’s The Seven Deadly Sins to open Adelaide’s Space Theatre in 1974. He taught her the value of precision and stillness on stage, so that any gestures take on greater significance. Archer’s mentor, the British scholar and Brecht translator John Willett, taught her she is a servant and conduit on stage: “If somebody cries in the audience,” he told her, “it’s because you’ve so powerfully told them a story that makes them cry.”

Perhaps Archer is better known today as a creative leader and eloquent arts advocate. She is a past director of the Adelaide Cabaret Festival, as well as the first woman to direct a major arts festival when she was appointed artistic director of the Adelaide Festival, first in 1998 and again in 2000. Archer also founded Tasmania’s Ten Days on the Island festival in 2001 and, as well as helming the then Melbourne International Arts Festival (2002-04), founded Melbourne’s Light in Winter festival in 2007. But as a performer and songwriter, she deserves the word icon.

Archer spends most of her time in Melbourne, where she lives with her partner, art historian Olivia Meehan. During the lead-up to a show, Meehan knows Archer will become quiet and introspective. “It’s always been like this, saving up the energy so when you hit the stage there’s all that energy to give an audience,” says Archer. “I can become not exactly uncommunicative but not as effusive as I normally would be. So that could be a pain for anyone.”

Lee Lewis, the artistic director of Queensland Theatre, remembers her parents raving about A Star Is Torn, Archer’s hit one-woman show that toured Australia between 1979 to 1983 and played for a year in London’s West End. Lewis has commissioned Archer to create and perform Robyn Archer: An Australian Songbook, which will premiere in Brisbane on June 25, following an Archer performance at the National Folk Festival in Canberra on April 16.

“I saw Prince live at Madison Square Garden, and Robyn is like Prince,” says Lewis. “There is a direct line of connection from Robyn’s body to everybody in the space. Everybody comes out feeling like she has looked right at them and sung directly to them.”

Archer laughs at this praise, revealing she is myopic and can’t see one face from the stage. She calls out to her Dunstan Playhouse audience, to anyone who “feels peeved about being pushed into the old-age bracket”. Archer announces on stage she is about to turn 73, and raises one hand in the air. She flips the bird with her middle finger, and declares: “Age: fuck it!”

Such defiant artistic fire. Where is the source of her energy?

 

Chas Hoad’s British Hotel, Lower North Adelaide, 1952. Ellen Elita Hoad, a fishmonger’s daughter from London’s East End, wears a nice floral dress for the summer, with press-studded lace sleeves covering her amateur tattoos. She and her great-granddaughter Robyn, aged four, are about to put on a show in the ladies’ lounge.

About 5pm, Ellen high kicks down the stairs, with Robyn behind her. Ellen kicks an empty beer tray over her head and catches it, and puts the child on a table, who sings to the customers: “My young man, went to France / To teach the ladies how to dance / First on heel, then on toe / That’s the way the ladies go.”

Ellen came to Australia with her publican partner Charlie Burnett, a rogue probably on the run from being drafted, around the start of World War I. He had scars on his neck from fights in the East End.

For years, Archer assumed Charlie was her biological great-grandfather. In truth, he had stolen Ellen from another man in England, and also stole his surname. Having eloped and fled to the antipodes, Charlie and Ellen had a regional touring act called Charlie and Nellie, and one unverified rumour has it that Charlie chopped up a piano in a South Australian town. But he had his good side – he bought Archer her first guitar.

Archer never met her paternal grandmother, who died of tuberculosis during World War II. At 15, she gave birth to Archer’s father, Cliff, whose nickname “Lykke” came from his day job working for an Adelaide painting company of the same name.

Lykke would sing “Ave Maria” at Catholic weddings and “I Believe” at Protestant nuptials. Robyn preferred her dad’s “beautiful voice” when he crooned rather than when he strained in the attempt to be a proper tenor like Mario Lanza. She apprenticed herself to him at his shows. Her mother, Mary, had a lovely voice too, but never sang publicly. Lykke and Mary would harmonise with Archer around the kitchen table. When Archer turned five, the family moved to a Housing Trust home in Broadview in Port Adelaide, where she lived until she was 21.

“I was born with every eczema known to man and then at two swapped that for asthma,” says Archer now. “They had real fears I wasn’t gonna make it, I think that’s what the doctors told them. Because of that, and because I was an only child, they didn’t really have expectations of me beyond staying alive.”

While attending local Enfield High School, where Archer became head prefect and school magazine editor, she entered a singing competition and won, her prize being four appearances on television’s Bandstand, hosted in Sydney by Brian Henderson. Aged 16 and staying at the Chevron Hilton in Kings Cross, Archer grasped her same-sex attraction by glamorous proxy.

“I saw drag queens for the first time and went, ‘Ohh, there are others!’ ” she says, laughing. “These ones are boy ones. I mean [the realisation] was that primitive. I came back and broke up with my boyfriend who I’d been steady [with] throughout high school. You know, the sex never worked out with beautiful Ray, but he turned out to be gay too.” Archer laughs harder.

She is an ambassador for Melbourne’s new Pride Centre in St Kilda, having had a “very easy time of it in the 1960s” when coming to grips with her sexuality. When she was 18, her mother, Mary, brought Robyn and her then girlfriend breakfast in bed.

In her late 20s, overseas and in London for the first time, Archer wrote home: “You understand, don’t you?” Mary wrote back: “As long as you’re happy, love, it doesn’t matter.”

 

For her Australian songbook, Archer is whittling down a long list of candidate songs, and will devote a small section to her mother, who died aged 92 in 2016. Archer will recite a poem Mary taught her. Mary enjoyed yodelling, as does Archer. “Most of the things my mother taught me I can’t actually share on stage because they’re way too rude.”

It will include poets whose words have been set to music, such as Judith Rodriguez and Dorothy Hewett, and Archer’s composition “The Jubilee Cakewalk” – about the 1975 Whitlam government dismissal – because it is a significant political and social moment. Archer warns nothing has changed that could prevent another such attack on democracy. She also has permission to include at least one Indigenous composition, which she will perform in its original language.

“Most of this repertoire people are not going to recognise, but that’s why I’m doing it,” says Archer. “Largely I have to say they’re not pop-love songs, it’s not about the greatest hits of all time … [rather] it’s a great opportunity to raise people’s understanding.” Will there be a national tour to follow? “If it works then we can flog it around, see if anyone else wants it.”

Lee Lewis says: “I’ve said to her, when the voice actually goes, I need you to actually think about who to pass this onto, because it’s a work for the time and for the country that’s built around you, but it’s a story that must continue. It’s terrible to think about but there’s also a part of the question of what is legacy.”

The voice remains in fine fettle and Archer is deeply conscious of the opportunities she has had to range widely across folk, cabaret, pop and country repertoire. Early on, when she joined New Opera South Australia, the company wanted to iron out the crack between her chest and head, but she declined on the basis she might never be able to yodel again.

All these opportunities came despite her hard-scrabble upbringing in the little grey housing “commish” concrete brick unit tied to the people next door, where the rent man would beep his horn in the street and the women, housewives mostly, would run out to pay the rent.

“Because I think I was so loved by my parents, and we had the benefit of Mum’s wider family, it never occurred to me I should be in any way ashamed of this [upbringing],” Archer recalls. “Dad was out of work a few times – he lost his job in a car yard in the 1960s credit squeeze and had to go truck driving to Mount Isa, but we cried too much so he came home – but none of this registered as something I needed to escape, ever.”

As the first person in her family to go to university – she studied middle English and Latin at Adelaide University and went on to honours in English language and literature – she had no self-consciousness about inviting her peers and professors to “slum it” at a beer keg party in a Housing Trust shed. But as a traditional Labor voter and arts advocate, she worries how a young working-class woman of today would fare in a neoliberal world where the cost of an arts degree has just doubled.

“If you’re in a commission place, if you’re in high rise somewhere, I’m not sure whether the strength of community in those places is as strong as it was for us,” she says. “I think [Senator] Jacqui Lambie was actually quite right when she pointed out it really is bad for less privileged kids because, often, they don’t have a clue what they want to do, but they will go and do an arts degree while they find out what they want to do.

“I learnt so many things at university: discipline, how to write, read, how to develop a critique. It was how you read between the lines, doing so much in language and literature and translation. Those are the things that allowed me to have a double, triple career.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 26, 2022 as "Singing in the dark".

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Steve Dow is the 2020 Walkley Arts Journalism award recipient.

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